The Practical Guide to Total Living

Author: Dave Reidy '99

We spend our lives searching for a guide, a handbook to help us navigate the urban landscape in which we live. We search for bound pages to fill the spiritual and cultural void we feel in the very pit of our souls. The Bhagavad-Gita, Catcher In The Rye, Martha Stewart Living: I tried them all. And while all of them contained pearls of wisdom, they lacked the totality of guidance I sought. So I decided I would live one day of my life entirely informed by a work that boasts the accrued knowledge of centuries of rural existence, and apply its wisdom to my 20-something, uber-hip Chicagoan lifestyle. On September 23, 2000, I would test the validity of The Old Farmer’s Almanac: 2000, and see if this treasured piece of Americana could act as sherpa for my soul.

According to the Almanac, September 23 was the first full day of autumn. I knew fall in Chicago would test any periodical that purported to predict, among other things, the weather. The work would be vetted the moment I left my home.

I rose before dawn and consulted the Almanac for the time of sunrise. I quickly found that the _Almanac_’s predictions are made only for Boston, with conversions for the rest of the United States buried deep within the 320-page reference book. Even before I had rubbed the sleep from my eyes, I was hit squarely between them with a dose of WASP-ish, East Coast elitism. Surely New England was no longer the axis of American life. Surely 21st century citizens would not be made to perform intricate calculations because the _Almanac_’s publishers are fixated upon a polluted metropolis where no real agriculture has taken place in nearly a century. Never mind the fact that the Almanac was first published in 1792, when Boston was the northern center of a nascent Republic, and the land where Chicago now sits was known only to natives. It was not yet 6 a.m., and because Almanac founder Robert B. Thomas was immune to the urgings of Horatio Alger, I was required to do math.

By adding six minutes to Boston’s sunrise, I was able to ascertain that the sun would rise in Chicago at 6:39. I decided to walk to the lakefront to test the _Almanac_’s prediction ability, but this would not be the first test for the Almanac that day.

I had vowed to dress precisely for the weather the Almanac called for on September 23. For the period of September 20 through 24, the rural periodical forecasted “seasonable” weather in Chicago and the Southern Great Lakes. How convenient. In Chicago, is “seasonable” September weather warm sunshine on leaves tinged with crimson — or a soaking rain? I looked to the month’s average temperature, 66 degrees Fahrenheit, and took “seasonable” at its positive connotation. I dressed for a pleasant fall dawn, as the Almanac seemed to dictate, and donned a relaxed, yet humbly stylish urban ensemble, consisting of a long-sleeve T-shirt, cargo pants and running shoes. I stepped outside, and felt . . . eminently comfortable. Kudos were due the Almanac. I was dressed appropriately.

I walked the two miles to the lakefront, arrived at 6:20 a.m., sat and waited. At 6:39 on the dot, the sun appeared over the lake with a beautiful burst of light. The Almanac was right again, and what is more amazing, they had known that this very moment would occur in a hip, young urbanite’s quest for direction, in a town far from the Puritans’ adopted homeland.

Returning home, I decided the Almanac had passed its first two tests with flying colors. The experiment would continue, and I would consult the agricultural serial for the remainder of the day.

I first happened upon the “Best Fishing Days, 2000” chart. I had been known to drop a line in the Chicago River’s North Branch, or Lake Michigan, and to do so without a license, a form of protest in defense of my natural rights aligned in spirit with the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. The key factors in predicting fishing success, the Almanac purported, were sun position, fly hatchings and tides. I had missed the post-sunup feeding frenzy during my walk home from the lake, and I used my keen sense of natural rhythms to devise that no flies would bother to hatch this close to winter. Therefore, I could only rely upon the tides to determine when would be the best time to fish on this glorious premier of autumn.

Upon consulting the tide charts, however, I found listings only for the states of the Eastern Seaboard. Apparently Chicago, being the Harvard-less, Midwestern hick town that it is, is not worthy of a tide chart. Does not Lake Michigan have tides? Are not our landlocked bodies of water subject to the whims and whimsy of the sun and moon? Enraged, I returned to the lakefront to scan the horizon for shipping freighters run aground on barely submerged sandbars. I found none, and began the long walk back to my apartment in the certain knowledge that on September 23, 2000, there would be no fishing. The Almanac had insulted Chicago and had failed me for the first time.

When I arrived home and consulted the Almanac calendar, I learned that September 23 was an “Ember Day,” which meant absolutely nothing to me. Upon consulting the “Glossary of Almanac Oddities” on page 275, I found that Ember Days were the Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays observed by the Roman Catholic (WASPs be damned!) and Anglican (I spoke too soon) churches as periods of prayer, fasting and the ordination of clergy. Ember Days followed the First Sunday in Lent, Pentecost, the Feast of the Holy Cross and the Feast of Saint Lucy. Apparently, the Feast of the Holy Cross had come and gone on September 14, and today was the traditional Saturday Ember Day that succeeded it.

As a practicing Catholic unaware of nearly all of these things, I initially feared that I would always mark September 23 as the day I realized I would feel the burn of the fiery embers of Hell, for I had obviously failed to get the ecclesiastical memo regarding the above. But the Almanac assuaged my fears, revealing that neither Catholics nor our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Church observe Ember Days any more. The Almanac references them only because folklore holds that Ember Days predict the weather for the three successive months. That meant, by my calculations, that the weather of September 23 would have direct bearing on the weather for December 2000. I walked outside again, felt the comfortable dampness, and spoke aloud, “Seasonable.” At the thought of a “seasonable” December in Chicago, I quickly dialed my travel agent and arranged to spend the Christmas season with the honeys in Cancun.

I returned to the Almanac for further knowledge of its unique, and thus far mainly reliable, perspective on my urban present and future, and discovered a passage on the prediction of earthquakes. The Farmer’s Guide revealed that when the moon rides high, so begins a five-day period during which earthquakes are most likely to occur in the Northern Hemisphere. On September 22, the moon had indeed ridden high in the sky, which placed September 23 in the thick of a highly serious five-day earthquake season. For the next three hours, I braced for the worst beneath a closet doorframe, sweating away the passing minutes. Then it occurred to me that though the Almanac, with the exception of the tide debacle, had fared well that day with regard to prophesy, the Northern Hemisphere is a large area, and the earthquake was just as likely to take place in Liechtenstein as Chicago. I gingerly stepped out from underneath the door, replaced my Precious Moments curios on the high shelves and cautiously returned to the Almanac for further disclosure. It was now 2:30 p.m.

I began to place more and more stock into what the Almanac had to say about how I was spending my day, and how I was living my life. Finally, at 4 p.m., I searched the Almanac for a good capper for this first day of fall. The “Month-by-Month Astrological Timetable” revealed the best times to begin or perform a wide variety of activities. But to my dismay, I found that the 23rd of September was not a good time to do . . . anything. At all. September 23 was not a good day for entertaining, dieting to lose weight, seeing a dentist, camping, logging, cutting hay, slaughtering, breeding or castrating animals. Accordingly, I did none of these things. Pruning to discourage growth would have to wait until tomorrow.

In my close reading of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, I found literally hundreds of interesting facts. Some were nothing short of exhilarating. For example, my home state of Illinois is known for effectively raising copious crops of soy, corn and swine. But did you know that Illinois farmers raise such delicacies as horseradish, ostriches and sorghum, as well? Upon reading this, I felt an immense swell of local pride. Sorghum. Just imagine! My pride crescendoed when I read that the 4.5 million hogs raised annually in Illinois could provide the world with 190 million BLT sandwiches. However, I sobered at the following thought: Was there a state capable of providing the requisite tomatoes and lettuce for such a venture? I nervously reviewed the “Food We Love To Brag About” state-by-state chart, and found no reference to tomatoes or lettuce. Let it be known, then, that should the great state of Illinois ever undertake the making of 190 million BLT sandwiches, I will happily utilize my available gardening time and space to cultivate lettuce or tomatoes, however the sitting governor instructs me. Either crop will be planted according to the _Almanac_’s well-organized “Gardening By The Moon’s Sign” table.

But perhaps the most fascinating and revealing chart in the _Almanac _was the one that measured “Calorie Burning.” Here the infinitely wise Almanac revealed that some of the common sports I had played my entire life could be favorably compared to the sort of household and outdoor chores I have spent a lifetime avoiding. For example, did you know that scrubbing floors burns the same number of calories as playing tennis? Chopping down trees has the same fitness value as football and also taps into the same, thrilling, “my life could end at any moment” occupational hazards of the gridiron. I made a solemn vow never to wash windows again, as this activity burns the same number of calories per hour as playing croquet. That is simply unacceptable. However, I called the Chicago Sporting Club, canceled my basketball league enrollment, and signed up for the class with the closest calorie-burning equivalency: “Forking Straw Bales For Singles.”

By 6 p.m., my faith in the Almanac had reached critical mass. Its predictions seemed nearly infallible. I had planned my tomorrow, my fall athletic activity and my December vacation out of information gleaned that day from the accumulated 208 years of rural, horticultural and folkloric wisdom contained in the Almanac. But as I neared the end of the periodical, page 310 to be exact, I happened upon a chart that would shake the psychic foundation of my ultra-hip, Chicago urbanite lifestyle.

The “Life Expectancy By Current Age” chart was not at all what I expected. I had previously believed that because we 20-somethings have benefited from some of the most stunning medical and nutritional advancements in the history of the world, we would live longer on average than those 45 years our senior. The Almanac begs to differ. A man of 25 can expect to live until age 74, while a 70-year-old man will live to the ripe old age of 82. I read and reread the table. How could this be? Could the Almanac, this pillar of prediction, actually claim that a man who had late 1920s prenatal care, ate road-kill during the Depression’s darkest years, lived through World War II, smoked cigarettes and believed that red meat and whole milk were keys to a healthy diet, would live longer than I would by eight years? Sure, one could argue statistically that the chart is predicated on the fact that a 25-year-old man has 45 more years to be hit by a bus than does a 70-year-old man. The septuagenarian has lived through the most dangerous parts of the human life span and emerged brimming with life enough for 12 more years.

But the socioeconomic and statistical arguments are neither here nor there. As night fell, I was at a crossroads. Would I begin a will, buy a burial plot and recalibrate my nascent retirement plans for a life span of merely 74 years? Or would I simply dismiss what I had learned today, ignore the uncanny accuracy of predictions made months, sometimes years in advance? Would I never use the information gleaned in the article “How To Predict the Weather Using a Pig Spleen”? Could I afford to disregard nuggets of applicable wisdom like the gentle reminder to bring your pet to a veterinarian when it is hit by a car, even if Fluffy or Rex “seems OK”?

Yes. I would ignore all this and more. The lifestyle I live and love is built on notions of youthful indestructibility. The specter and portent of death in a short five decades would prove too much for me to bear. I had to make Almanac, what I had learned, what by then I knew to be true the very definition of falsehood. I would undo all I had done: cancel my flight to Cancun, reschedule my basketball league with Chicago Sporting, toss out my “Sorry I Missed Ember Day” greeting cards. But I could not get back the hours I’d spent beneath a doorframe waiting for the earth to shatter and the sky to fall. And I would never recoup the time I spent walking to and from the lakefront in my vetting of the Almanac. In fact, my feet and legs were quite sore as autumn’s first day came to a seasonable end. And for what?

I would go back to living my enviable urban lifestyle. I would maintain the perfect combination of yuppie, bar-hopping sensibility and bohemian, artistic pretension. I would live my life not by the Old Farmer’s Almanac, but by the only handbooks a hip, 20-something Chicagoan should use: Spin and the J. Crew Catalogue.